The Race and the Reward
Topic: Pauline Epistles Passage: Philippians 3:12–3:21
“THE RACE AND THE REWARD”
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.
17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.
Perseverance in the face of adversity is one of the reasons I love sports competition so much. To watch an athlete strive against the odds in an effort to succeed, to try again and again after repeated failure, and to refuse to give up—no matter the score—until the contest is over are all testimonies to the way Christians ought to live their lives.
The Apostle Paul must have been aware of the athletic contests of his day, given the number of times he applies sports-related metaphors to the Christian life (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Galatians 2:2 and 5:7, 2 Timothy 2:5 and 4:7). Already in this letter, in Philippians 2:16, he has referred to the dreaded possibility of “run(ning the race of life) in vain.”
We find just such an illustration in the passage we have read. In likening the life of the Christian to an athletic event, Paul speaks of a race that is to be run, as well as a reward to be won. The “race” is depicted not as a sprint, but as a marathon. It is one that begins when Jesus Christ is confessed as one’s Savior and Lord, and does not end until this life is over. And the “reward” of which he speaks is the consummation, the full benefit of salvation...in a word, the full realization and apprehension of Christ Himself.
Paul referred to this in the section that immediately precedes this one—Philippians 2, verse 10: “That I may know him and the power of his resurrection.” Although certain of his salvation and his relationship with Christ, it remained his aspiration to “know” Christ fully. He was aware that “perfection” in this life was unattainable. Perseverance and persistence, lived in anticipation of the day when He met his Lord face-to-face...that was the “goal” toward which he strived everyday.
It was the same “goal” that he sought for his readers as well, just as it should be the goal for every follower of Jesus Christ today. Let’s notice how the writer develops this theme in the passage before us. First of all, in verses 12 through 21, Paul exhorts us with regard to...
Persevering onward to the goal (verses 12-16).
As we have said, the Christian life is not a sprint...it is a marathon, a cross-country race. If there was anyone alive at the time Paul wrote this letter whom we might assume to have already “arrived,” it would have been the apostle himself. But he begins by saying, “Not that I have already obtained.”
It is interesting to observe that Paul begins this paragraph by saying that he has not “already obtained,” and he concludes it by referring to something that has been “attained.” Granted, we are looking at an English translation, so the distinction is borne out more clearly in the original. I believe what Paul is alluding to in verse 16 is the possession of salvation and the level of spiritual maturity that has thus far been “attained” and is presently possessed. Whereas in verse 12, the reference is to that full and perfect experience of salvation that he will one day know. It is something that is “unobtainable” in this life, but that toward which he draws closer with every passing day.
That is what he means when he says that he is not “already perfect.” The word (“τελειοs”) means “mature” in a full and complete sense...something no Christian has or ever will have as long as these decaying bodies are being inhabited.
Even though the ultimate “goal” remained before him—just as it remains beyond our grasp as well—Paul is motivated to “press on to make it (his) own, (now notice) because Christ Jesus has made (him) his own.” In other words, because Christ had first pursued Paul, Paul now purses after Christ. The order is important. What enables us to persevere in the Christian life is the recognition that we have first been purchased by Jesus through His death on the cross and redeemed from the penalty of our sin through His precious blood. That is what provides the motivation for us to “press on.”
When we are struck by the full realization of the enormity of the price that was paid to make the believing sinner the purchased possession of God, it sets before us what J. Oswald Sanders described as “the power of a master ambition.” Paul called it the “one thing I do.” In other words, it became the “driving force” and “consuming passion” of his life. And what was that “one thing,” that “goal” toward which Paul aimed and which motivated him above everything else? In verse 14 it is called “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Whenever Paul speaks of God’s “call,” it is in reference to His “effective call” that brings the lost sinner to salvation. Here Paul uses it to refer to the ultimate consummation of that “call” of God in the life of the believer. He speaks of it again in Romans 8:29 and 30, which is known as the Ordo Salutis, or “the golden chain of salvation.” There he said,
For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
It was toward this ultimate expression toward which Paul “pressed.”
But wasn’t Paul already “saved”? Yes, he had “attained” a “right-standing” with God through faith in Christ, but he continued to strive—to “press on”—in order to “obtain” a sanctified life that was consistent and in keeping with his position. He pursued Christlikeness with the enthusiasm and endurance of a competitive long-distance runner.
Which raises the question: toward what goal are you striving? What is the “prize” toward which You are striving? What gets you out of bed in the morning and gives purpose to your day? In other words, for what—or for whom—are you living your life?
I’m afraid that what we are describing here is foreign to the thinking of many of us. Most of who name the name of Christ are far too content to rely on our professions of faith in the past, rather than daily pursuing that “manner of life (that is) worthy of the gospel of Christ” (cf. Philippians 1:27). What is the “one thing” that defines your life?
Think with me for a moment of other places in the Scriptures where we encounter the significance of the phrase, “one thing.” I think of...
- Mark 10:21: “And Jesus, looking at (a man who longed to inherit eternal life), loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
- Luke 10:42: “But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are anxious about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
- John 9:25: The man, whose sight had been restored by Jesus, in response to the Pharisees’ blasphemous charges against Jesus, said: “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
- And Psalm 27:4, where David declared, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.”
It may well have been this last reference that Paul, who knew the Old Testament like the back of his hand, was meditating upon as he wrote this passage.
In our competitive world of professional sports, athletes do not excel at every aspect of their game. He or she succeeds by specializing at doing “one thing” with excellence. Paul describes three crucial elements to winning the race, whether it be in the arena or in the Christian life:
- In the first place, he must be “forgetting what lies behind.” The runner is one who is not distracted by other things. He considers nothing in his past as either a help or a deterrent in his present quest. He also does not look behind him in order to gauge his progress with others who are in the race.
- In addition, he must be “straining forward to what lies ahead.” He keeps his eyes on the “goal” before him and the “prize” that awaits. Every race and every athletic contest has a terminal point...there is a “finish line,” a “bottom of the ninth,” a “final buzzer.” The word “straining” implies self-discipline and expending “every ounce of strength and stamina” while the contest is going on.
- And finally, he must keep in mind that it is “the prize” which provides the ultimate reason for running. For Paul—and for us—that means the consummation of the future reality that awaits...being in the very presence of Christ Himself.
The early Church father, John Chrystostom, wrote of this pursuit, saying,
He that runs looks not at spectators, but at the prize. Whether they be rich or poor, if one mock them, applaud them, insult them, throw stones at them—if one plunder their house, if they see children or wife or anything whatsoever—the runner is not turned aside, but is concerned only with his running and winning the prize. He that runs stops nowhere; since, if he be a little remiss, all is lost. He that runs relaxes in no respect before the end, but then, most of all extends.
Although Paul likely did not write the Epistle to the Hebrews, in chapter 12 of that letter we find this excellent commentary on what Paul describes here in Philippians 3:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted” (Hebrews 12:1-3).
In verse 15, Paul tells us that this is the way “mature” Christians think. He also allows for the fact that not all of us have reached the place in our understanding where we comprehend that as clearly as we might or one day will. Right thinking leads to right living. The followers of Christ do not live for “the American dream” or whatever other distraction may be placed before. Instead they live for Him from the perspective of eternity. As we do, we are not to “feel our way” through life on the strength of our own “feelings” and “reasonings.” We are rather to trust Him to “reveal” His way to us. And He does that primarily through His Word.
Jesus set the course, ran the race, and captured the victor’s crown. Now we, too, have been “called (to the starting gate)...so that (we) might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21). Until the day when we cross the finish line of our own life’s race, Paul urges that we “hold true to what we have (already) attained.”
This paragraph serves to remind us that God’s purposes for us as Christians will not be finished until such time that He brings our salvation to its grand climax. Despite our “death-denying” culture, our Lord has more—much more—for us beyond this present life. For the time being, it is our duty to “press on” to know Christ more fully with every passing day. Nothing else counts for much except “knowing Christ,” both presently and with clear and certain hope for the future.
In our quest to be persevering toward that “goal,” you and I need to in the mean time be...
Preserving the value of the prize (verses 17-21).
How true it is that those things for which we most long so quickly lose their luster once they are in our possession. I can recall as a child wishing for a particular birthday or Christmas gift for months, receiving it with great excitement, playing with it for a few days, and then placing it aside in order to collect dust, and then eventually over time watching it being put out for the next morning’s trash collection.
Even as adults, although our toys tend to be larger and more expensive, we do the same thing. Perhaps that is because the things we desire are not as valuable as we might suppose. C.S. Lewis put it this way:
It would seem the our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling around with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
And far too quickly disappointed and disillusioned, I might add. Paul wanted to make certain that the Christians to whom he was writing would more fully understand what was meant by his reference in verse 8 to “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus.” There is no greater “goal” to pursue, and there is no more valuable “prize” to preserve.
Jesus had said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). In verses 17 through 21, Paul assumes the role of a teacher...an instructor, a mentor, if you will. When he writes, “Brothers, join in imitating me,” he is not putting himself before them as a “flawless model.” Remember, he has just admitted to not being “already perfect.” His statement here must be read within the context of 1 Corinthians 11:1, where he very clearly says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” In other words—just as ever pastor should be telling his people—“follow me to the degree and to the extent that I follow Christ.” No further...but certainly no less.
It is sometimes said that “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.” Paul was not looking to be personally “flattered,” but instead sought to focus all attention on Christ alone. In order to assist us in that quest, the Lord has given us one another...the fellow-members of our local church. When he writes “keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us,” he is saying that we should be modeling Christlike behavior before each other consciously and consistently. That is to be our mindset and our focus. Paul is intentional is his choice of words. The phrase, “keep your eyes on” (“σκοπεω”) is the verbal form of the noun, “goal” (“σκοποs”), that we first saw in verse 14. We should be making it our “goal” to be continually setting a Godly example before one another.
Whenever we read our church covenant, that is what we are pledging to be for one another. Take, for example, the point of that covenant at which we say, “We will walk together in brotherly love, as becomes the members of a Christian church, and exercise an affectionate care and watchfulness over each other, and faithfully admonish and entreat one another as occasion may require.” Each time we recite our covenant, we call the Lord to witness what we are pledging.
Paul states the reason for his exhortation in verse 18, and he does so with great emotion: “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.” This is probably another reference to the “Judaizers” of his day and their proclamation of a “works-based righteousness.” But its application extends broader to include every form of preaching that is inconsistent with the purity of the Gospel message. The apostle’s eyes are filled “with tears” as he thinks and writes about the damage done by these “enemies of the cross.” The language is both compassionate and condemnatory. Perhaps nowhere in all of Paul’s writings do we see so clearly the spectrum of God’s own heart.
We, too, should grieve the lostness of false teachers, even as we expose the damning heresies they propagate. God takes “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (cf. Ezekiel 33:11, also 18:23 and 32), and neither should we. Verse 19 depicts them with four descriptive phrases:
- “Their end is destruction.” That word (“απωλεια”) is used in Scripture in direct opposition to “salvation” (“σωτηρια”). It has an eternal connotation and refers to ruination due to separation from God. Notice, “their end (already) is (not one day will be) destruction.” They may not realize it, but it is the state in which the presently exist.
- Next, we are told, “their god is their belly.” In other words, they live according to their own fleshly, impulsive, and spontaneous appetites. They give little, if any, thought to others, and even less to the damage their self-centeredness creates.
- Even more damning is the statement that “they glory in their shame.” They boast with pride in the work they perform. Rather than giving glory to God, they are like Herod in the Book of Acts (12:23), who was eventually consumed from within himself.
- And finally, their “minds (are) set on earthly things.” All of their thoughts center around this present life. They entertain no real concept of a future accountability, and thus live for the latest “cause” or “fad.”
All of those things are “valueless,” and this is why believers are strongly exhorted to “keep (their) eyes” focused on the pursuit of the “goal” and the “prize” that awaits. If you have not yet read Jerry Bridges’ book, The Pursuit of Holiness, I highly recommend it to you. It has become a classic in its own time. How the church of today needs to rediscover a passionate “pursuit” of God. The psalmist speaks of it as a “panting” (cf. Psalm 42:1), such as that experienced by an exhausted runner who has expended every ounce of energy because he has committed to reach the “finish line.” Jesus Christ is worth it!
The “goal” toward which we strive is brought into even sharper focus in verses 20 and 21, when we are reminded that “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
As children we used to sing, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through; my treasure is laid up, somewhere beyond the blue.” It seems like, for many of us, the thought of a future home in heaven seems too remote to occupy much attention in the busyness of our days. But their reality is what drove the Apostle Paul and enabled him to maintain a joyful outlook, even in the midst of adverse circumstances.
In fact, the word that is translated “await” (“απεκδεξομαι”) means “to wait with eager anticipation.” It’s like standing on one’s “tip-toes” and looking over a crowd of people at an arrival gate at an airport and looking intently to spot the one you are waiting for. That One for whom we ought most to be waiting is none other than our “Savior” and “Lord,” Jesus Himself.
And when He arrives, so we are told, He “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body.” That is not meant to suggest our present physical bodies are contemptible, but rather are to be viewed as greatly inferior to the bodies we will one day be given when Christ returns.
1 John 3:2, we are told that “When he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” So, what is He like? Well, consider the fact that the Gospels describe Jesus’ resurrected body as being physical but also glorious and not limited by being material. The risen Lord could be touched (cf. Luke 24:39, John 20:27), and he could eat (cf. Luke 24:42-43). On the other hand, he could at times be mysteriously unrecognizable (cf. Luke 24:16, John 20:15) and could pass into a locked room (John 20:26). Rather than being a constant physical presence with the disciples as he was before the crucifixion, he appeared, disappeared, and reappeared over a forty-day period prior to his ascension back into heaven (cf. Luke 24:31, John 21:14, Acts 1:3).
If I understand correctly what Paul is saying here, our bodies will be of the same identical and essential character as His. Try and let that sink in. Much of this remains a mystery for us now, but it can be believed and received by faith. We have God’s Word on it. This miracle of “transformation” (“μετασχηματιζω”) will be made possible by the very same “power”—or “supernatural energy” working to achieve its goal—“that enables (Jesus) to subject all things to himself.”
That is what it means for Jesus to be “Lord.” “All things” will be made “subject” to Him. David wrote of Him in Psalm 8(:6), “You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.” And again in Psalm 110(:1), “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”
And, of course, we have before us the testimony that Paul himself has earlier stated in this letter...chapter 2, and verses 9 through 11:
“Therefore, God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
When we read words like these and we pause to meditate upon them for more than just a passing moment upon them, how can any Christian not “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”? Is there anything of greater value worth pursuing than Him? Is He the One you are pursuing?
Every successful athlete is motivated by what has been described as “the 5 D’s.” And every follower of Christ would be well-advised to be motivated by them as well:
- There is dissatisfaction that he has not yet “arrived.” Paul said “Not that I have already obtained or am already perfect.” Christians are always people who are “in process.”
- There is devotion to a single objective. Paul said, “On thing I do.” Have you defined you life’s purpose yet...the reason for which you have been created? You have been placed on this planet and given life for a reason...”to glory God and to enjoy Him forever.”
- There is direction at which he aims. Paul was insistent on “forgetting what lies behind.” Long before “Siri” or GPSes, there was Scripture, which when read, studied, meditated upon gives us clear instruction what paths to follow and which ways to pursue.
- There is determination in “straining forward to what lies ahead.” The Christian life is not an easy life, but everything else is not “life” at all. All other options are counterfeit and will be exposed. They must be rejected for something far better now.
- And there is discipline in “hold(ing) true to what we have attained.” As one of my former mentors would often remind us, “Discipline, not desire determines destiny.” Employing once again the athletic metaphor, Paul wrote elsewhere, “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27). Saying “yes” to Jesus means saying “no” to other things.
This passage serves to remind us that our salvation is not just for today but forever. Therefore, for the Christian, there is a race to be run and a reward to be won. And the “prize” that awaits is worth every expenditure we make for the sake of His great name.
The Lord has summoned the runners to the “starting line.” Have you even entered the race? If not, that’s where you need to begin. You need to renounce your sin and turn to Christ and the salvation He offers. You can do that today and begin running the course He has marked out for you.
If you are currently running, what kind of progress are you making? Are you still hanging around the “starting line,” or are you “pressing on” toward the goal because you value the “prize” more than ever?
Jesus is coming again, and at His coming the glory that belongs to Christ alone—and to those who belong to Him by faith—will at last be revealed. Until then, we—like Paul—must “press on.”